FOOD POLITICS

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Politics has grown schizophrenic

Despite the reality that Republicans swept the November 2016 elections, winning not only the presidency and both houses of the U.S. Congress, but also gains that put them in control of both legislative chambers in 32 of the 50 states, with veto-proof majorities in 17, along with 33 of 50 state governors, the political climate is far from consensual. A growing rift over several issues that many might have considered already settled long ago will continue in 2017, amounting to what could rightly be called political schizoprhenia. Even in Nebraska, areas of hot disagreement will continue to strain some former alliances, including:

Immigration. President Trump's promised overhaul of U.S. immigration law, including strengthening the southern border with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration and to increase enforcement efforts to detain and deport illegal immigrants, has put him at odds with much of his support base in American agriculture.

As a result of the chronic labor shortage U.S. farms face, it's been estimated that as many as one in four U.S. farmworkers are foreigners without legal documentation. A 2012 USDA study predicted that tightening border enforcement and cleaning up the federal government's temporary visa program for farmworkers could have significant negative impacts on U.S. farms, in particular, fruit and nut growers, vegetable producers and nurseries. A similar study underwritten by the American Farm Bureau in 2014  found changes most similar to what President Trump has proposed would cause unacceptable harm to American farms. Farm Bureau called instead for policies that would permit workers with experience in agriculture but no legal status to stay. Trump's popularity in rural America notwithstanding, success for Trump's southern wall is likely to require a big gate be included.

Trade. Despite that widespread support by farm states for Trump, who ran on promises of renegotiating trade deals to favor American business and bring back manufacturing to this country, the reality is that the farm economy—and surrounding communities, as in Nebraska—is increasingly dependent on world trade. With net farm income projected to be down nearly 40 percent over the last three years, according to a USDA report from late December, farmers will continue to be dependent on export markets to support depressed prices and declining profits at home. According to current estimates, about one-third of all U.S. farm income comes from exports. Yet, Trump spent much of his campaign attacking multilateral trade deals that support U.S. agricultural exports, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal, which American Farm Bureau estimated would have added $4.4 billion annually to the U.S. agricultural economy. Economic analysis conducted by Nebraska Farm Bureau last year showed that virtually every county in Nebraska would have benefited from the agreement, which would likely have increased agricultural cash receipts by more than $378 million a year.

Loss of those trade deals need not be all bad, if the new administration moves agressively toward one-on-one trade agreements that benefit the United States, as Trump also promised. But for now, Steve Nelson, Nebraska Farm Bureau president, said his organization was disappointed with Trump’s decision.

Food companies driving proxy farm regulation. Perhaps no better example of how food politics have been turned inside out exists than this: Even as big-business food companies adopt and promote high-profile positions that require their farmer-suppliers to agree to self-regulate practices ranging from environmental sustainability to animal-welfare, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has openly attacked many of the previous administration's environmental and animal-welfare regulations. Pruitt sued the EPA in 2015 over the proposed Waters of the United States rule, which would have placed regulation of ditches and small creeks under EPA control as "navigable waters." He also helped write Oklahoma's ballot question 777 last year which would have required courts to recognize the rights of farmers in that state to farm as they see fit.

Taxes and the budget. The Nebraska state government's projected $911 million budget shortfall as this year's legislative session opened spells continued division over how to solve the funding shortfall, often making for an uncomfortable fit among otherwise natural political allies. While farm groups push for a reduction in what they believe to be crippling local property taxes, businesses are urging the state not to hide a continuing overall high tax climate by simply shifting those taxes onto a state level, where accountability could be lower.

What is livestock friendly?

More than a decade after Nebraska's legislature began creating “livestock friendly” designations for counties, those counties that have participated have gained more cattle ranches and lost fewer hog farms than counties that have not sought the state designation, according to a new study by University of Nebraska ag economists.

A wrap-up of 2016 political food issues

As shoppers across Nebraska sit down to the Thanksgiving meal, traditional and not-so-traditional, take a minute to reflect on the numerous ballot initiatives this fall aimed directly at changing the nature and make-up of that table. Highlights include:

Facts about ethanol fuel standard

Atop news that consolidation was occurring in the ethanol-refining business, as two Nebraska ethanol plants went on the block as part of bankruptcy proceedings against Abengoa Bioenergy, Investor's Business Daily marked the 11th anniversary of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard with an editorial from the oil industry demanding its end. Signed into law by President George W. Bush as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Renewable Fuel Standard requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of biofuels into new options for consumers at the pump. Despite sparking billions of dollars in U.S. investments and helping reduce dependence on foreign oil, the RFS remains an obviously complex and contentious issue, as the IBD editorial testifies. Clarity around RFS is important to retailers not only because of the implications for grocer's food costs, but also because of questions of whether ethanol mandates increase or decrease the cost of the gasoline most grocers now rely upon for sales or rewards programs.

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